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Relational Aesthetics, Relational Egalitarianism and the road to a Universal Basic Income

There is a sense of unified experience created by living through the dystopic landscape of a pandemic. While we have been isolated and divided, these challenges have highlighted our humanity, and the importance of having our most basic needs met. Through isolation our need for contact and connection has been starved. When we think about how art can operate from a hospitable place in this era, can the gallery become a second home to all? Provide the sustenance and connection we crave? Artists are often expected to perform this role, when many have not got much left to give, have perhaps lost their day jobs and are struggling to support their practice at all. Imagine a future where artists could afford to work full time on their practice, begin to shift away from the poverty, isolation and competition of the past. How would we relate to one another and the audience if there was an egalitarian foundation from which to jump off from? Where artist’s collective aesthetic contribution was valued and redistributed in the form of financial support.

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Matthew Bradley, Pies and Blossom (production image from Space Chickens Help Me Make Apple Pie), 2012, Courtesy the artist and GAGPROJECTS | Greenaway Art Gallery.

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The artist-audience relationship can be passive or active, but in essence it is a form of communication between humans, ideas, objects and space. When the relational paradigm is at the core of the work, as it is in ‘relational aesthetics’, the artist and audience are equal, and their humanity is highlighted. If we were to democratise the gallery, create more connected communities, reimagine the wider reality we desire within the gallery walls, could it become a social experiment for society as a whole? If we seek to dissolve the barrier between art and audience, why not dissolve the barrier between all sections of society.

“Over the last twenty years, many political philosophers have rejected the idea that justice is fundamentally about distribution. Rather, justice is about social relations, and the so-called distributive paradigm should be replaced by a new relational paradigm.” – p1 Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Relational Egalitarianism: Living as Equals, 2018 (1)

Kristen Voigt suggests that, “for relational egalitarians, equality is about how individuals relate to one another: equality requires that individuals regard and treat each other as equals.” (2). In Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, the way the audience relates to the unexpected event, intervention in space, or action becomes the work itself. Relational aesthetics is at its core egalitarian. The audience and their relationship to the artist and the art work becomes as important as the artist and the art making process.

While not all relational aesthetic interventions are hospitable, they all share one thing, the audience and their interaction with the work is elevated, the work becomes a moment of communication rather than contemplation. In relational aesthetics the gallery can be a microcosm for as Bourriaud proposes an ‘everyday micro-utopia’ (3). If we were to have a relational aesthetics revival, what kind of micro-utopia is needed now?

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Fear Eats the Soul, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable. © Rirkrit Tiravanija, 2019

I believe we currently need connection, support and a type of relational aesthetic work that involves shared food and conversation – something we have been starved of for the last two years. Food is central to community building as it enables us to connect and learn from each other in a way that we can all partake in, it is a need we all share. When thinking about relational aesthetics, it’s hard to bypass the name Rirkrit Tiravanija, a Thai contemporary artist, whose practice of serving food has brought the hospitality of the home to the gallery. Tiravanija’s 2011 work Fear Eats the Soul saw a soup kitchen set up in the gallery, commenting on poverty as well as exploring relational paradigms. Closer to home, in Tarntanya (Adelaide), Matthew Bradley’s 2012 work Space Chickens Help Me Make Apple Pie, saw the artist bake and serve apple pies in the gallery, making himself available to discuss the artwork and the universe as a whole. These works give back to the audience in a tangible way. Hospitality, however, is a two-way street. While we may reflect on what the arts can give to society during this time of need, what is it we need from our governments?

“Farley states that an egalitarian society suggests inclusive income support is available for all and is established as a right, rather than grounded in deserving and undeserving poor ideals.” — Reimagining Equity and Egalitarianism: The Basic Income Debate in Australia, 2016 (4)

The pandemic has highlighted a need for an unconditional and adequate Universal Basic Income (UBI). Economist and UBI advocate Yanis Varoufakis describes one argument for basic income, stating that we cannot separate private capital from state investment. Most technology used in commercial products has been funded by government grants, he sees that ‘collective production of wealth which is then privately appropriated’, should therefore result in a UBI as a payment of ‘dividends from our aggregate capital, which was after all created collectively’. (5)

In terms of art production, the role artists play in contributing to the aesthetic evolution of culture, creating a zeitgeist for example, could be seen to be appropriated by private business to create attractive ‘content’ and ‘advertising’ which is then used to gain profits. Aside from the fact that artists are generally underpaid for their commercial work, it is difficult to put a value on the scope of collective aesthetic contribution artists make to society. A capital dividend on creative input in the form of a UBI would as Yanis puts it ‘civilise capitalism’ (6), equalise humanity and provide artists with relief from the relentless struggle of funding their art practice.

Yanis gives us a beautiful visual to imagine the flaws of our current welfare system and the redefinition of what support would look like in the form of a UBI; “social democracy put forward the idea of a social safety net, …nets are very good for catching you when you’re falling, but when you are caught in them it is sometimes very difficult to get out of them, its sometimes very easy to be trapped, think of basic income as a foundation not a net, a floor on which to stand solidly and to be able to reach for the sky”. (7)

Something that has come out of the last two years of pandemic is real data on the social impact of lifting all Australians out of poverty.

“For a short time, Australia’s JobSeeker payment was doubled in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Obligations for those getting the payment were lifted… This support package gave many Australians access to a form of basic income. Almost immediately, hundreds of thousands of people were lifted out of poverty – many for the first time.” — Maiy Azize, What a basic income would mean for Australians, 2021 (8)

The necessity to create a humane and equal existence for all is at the centre of the case for the introduction of a UBI.  While the arts can play a role in creating greater connections to society in this time of need, what also do we need? We don’t need to write more grants or sell more work in an economy on the brink of recession. We need a new way to see, a new way to cope with what was once post-apocalyptic fiction, but is now our daily reality. We need time to heal, reflect and create, before we can give. There are trends globally and locally which indicate that the structures of economies with inbuilt UBI are on the horizon. Until then, we can lobby our governments, but also, perhaps create micro-utopias of equality, re-connect with our communities, and hope that we can transfer these relational paradigms to the wider social landscape.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Fear Eats the Soul, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable. © Rirkrit Tiravanija, 2019. Photos: Lance Brewer & Ron Amstutz